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Women Making Clothes for Australians Trapped in Poverty

27 February 2019 at 10:39 am
Luke Michael
Oxfam is demanding that Australian fashion brands commit to paying all workers in their supply chains a living wage, after the aid group found women in Bangladesh and Vietnam were making clothes for just 51 cents an hour.

Luke Michael | 27 February 2019 at 10:39 am


Women Making Clothes for Australians Trapped in Poverty
27 February 2019 at 10:39 am

Oxfam is demanding that Australian fashion brands commit to paying all workers in their supply chains a living wage, after the aid group found women in Bangladesh and Vietnam were making clothes for just 51 cents an hour.     

The charity interviewed 470 factory workers supplying clothes for brands such as Cotton On, Big W and Target, and said the widespread payment of “pittance wages” in the garment sector was trapping workers and their families in a cycle of poverty.

Researchers found nine out of 10 workers in Bangladesh could not afford enough food for themselves and their families, while more than half of workers in Vietnam said they could not afford medical treatment when they got sick or injured.

Oxfam Australia CEO Dr Helen Szoke said the investigation uncovered the widespread payment of poverty wages and the impact this was having on the lives of women making the clothes Australians loved to wear.

“Families that cannot make their pay stretch to put enough food on the table, people sleeping on floors in overcrowded houses, spiraling debts, mothers separated from their children – these are just some of the common realities of the failure of big brands to ensure the payment of living wages,” Szoke said.

“The Australian fashion industry was worth a staggering $23 billion last year – brands are responsible for making credible commitments to ensure the payment of living wages to the workers making their clothes, with clear timelines for achieving this.”

One woman profiled in the report was Chameli, who works in a factory in Bangladesh that supplies clothing to Big W.

Despite working in the industry for six years, staying until as late as 3am on some days during busy periods, her average pay rate is about 51 cents an hour.

The 30-year-old mother of three is saddled with debt and unable to buy basic supplies, or send her children to school. Instead, she is forced to send her daughter to work in a garment factory in order for the family to survive.

“If I had enough today, my daughter would not have to work… inside my mind I feel the pain, that today this daughter should have studied and played and this daughter of mine is working,” Chameli said.

The report said 100 per cent of workers interviewed in Bangladesh were not paid a living wage – defined as enough money to cover basic essentials such as food, housing and healthcare.

Oxfam’s interviews with factory owners and managers showed that Australian companies undertook fierce price negotiations to drive wages down and placed pressure on garment factories in many ways.

“[They] often jump between contracts instead of working with factories over the long term, squeeze lead times for orders and operate with a separation between their ethical and standards staff, and their buying teams who negotiate directly with factories,” the report said.

Oxfam said it was time for Australian brands to face up to the stark reality their workers faced, and turn their practices around to ensure a living wage for the women who made their clothes.

In 2017, Oxfam released a report showing that increasing the cost of the average piece of clothing in Australia by just 1 per cent would mean workers in the Australian garment supply chains earned a living wage.

Oxfam said they welcomed “credible commitments” made by Cotton On, Kmart, Target and City Chic recently that included time-bound steps toward reaching a living wage for the workers in their supply chains.

Big W responded to the report acknowledging the importance of building on the company’s responsible sourcing program it had in place.

The company said it had already implemented a government-mandated 51 per cent minimum wage increase across all its factories in Bangladesh.

In wake of the research, Responsible Investment Association Australasia CEO Simon O’Connor told Pro Bono News responsible investors expected companies to take responsibility for their supply chains.

“Issues such as paying living wages as well as modern slavery concerns are increasingly on the radar for responsible investors,” O’Connor said.

“In some cases, companies are simply moving too slowly on these important issues.”

O’Connor noted legislation was starting to catch up on these issues with the introduction of Australia’s first federal Modern Slavery Act, which he said shone a light on the need for companies to look deeply into their supply chains.

He said he had seen a growing push by investors internationally to engage with companies on living wages and expected this focus to continue in Australia as well.  

“We welcome some of the commitments being made by some of these retailers now in response to these issues, and our members will be engaging with these same companies on these and other issues,” he said.

Luke Michael  |  Journalist  |  @luke_michael96

Luke Michael is a journalist at Pro Bono News covering the social sector.

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